Step Into ‘The Arena’: Holly Jennings’ Sci-Fi Tale of Blood and Toxic Fame

 

It takes a lot of hard work and athletic ability to make it in the fight game, but it takes a lot of something else, too: showmanship. People like UFC fighter Conor McGregor or boxer Floyd Mayweather known that you’ve got to be entertaining if you expect to pull in a big audience. So do the virtual athletes of Holly Jennings’ novel Arena.

Decades in the future, the Virtual Gaming League is the biggest show in the world, offering virtual car races, gun battles, and the hottest game of all: Reality-Alternate Gladiator Events, or RAGE. Every Saturday, teams of virtual reality jocks take to the arena to battle it out, swords in hand. The top teams go on to the championship. The others go home.

Defiance is one of the hottest teams on the virtual circuit. Or, they were. They just got their asses handed to them, and management decides to shake things up by making star player Kali “The Warrior” Ling the new team captain. Kali deserves it: She’s a cold-blooded killer and a fan favorite, but she’s never been a leader, and as the first female captain in league history, all eyes will be on her.

It would be a tough gig under any circumstances, but these aren’t the best circumstances. With the taste of a humiliating defeat still lingering on their lips, the team loses one of its best players—and also Kali’s not-so-secret lover—to a drug overdose, and now they’ve got to get a new guy up to speed. But that’s not all: They’ve got an image to maintain and sponsors to promote, and they absolutely cannot miss a beat. If they’re not in the hottest clubs taking the newest drugs from dusk until dawn, the VGL might lose its grip on the public’s imagination.

Overwhelmed with grief she cannot express and saddled with a growing drug habit, Kali is losing it in a hurry. She’s disappearing into virtual reality more and more, and starting to lose track of time. The Virtual Gaming League has a dark side, and it has begun to claim her. Will she escape? Will the league let her?

As a fight fan and a lifelong gamer, I enjoyed Arena, but I don’t think you have to be either to really get into it. Kali is a very well drawn character: a totally ruthless fighter in the virtual world who is having trouble facing her own demons. As the real world gets even harder to deal with, it’s almost easy to see how an axe-wielding ogre would be preferable to toxic stardom.

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